The Year Ahead For...Magazines

Alistair MacCallum believes magazines must learn to work across multiple devices and evolve their propositions in the digital space.

Alistair MacCallum: ‘The bigger publishing houses will have to sharpen their behaviour  and be more nimblae and quicker to learn’
Alistair MacCallum: ‘The bigger publishing houses will have to sharpen their behaviour and be more nimblae and quicker to learn’

It is probably a good idea to state the obvious early on in this piece. That the continued divergence in how consumers are accessing content means that print sales will decline further in 2013.

It’s the same prognosis offered at the beginning of 2012 and, indeed, 2011. We have seen alarming rates of circulation decay in some categories, particularly weeklies and the men’s market. Yet 2012 was arguably most conspicuous for the lack of high-profile closures. There is also a cautious positivity about the future of magazine brands, as the stronger publishers have driven innovation in platform delivery, better-enabled the magazine reader to access content wherever they want and started to derive significant revenue from their digital platforms.

This year is therefore a potentially very exciting and defining one for the "hybrid multiplatform content experience" formerly known as magazines. It’s a year when the pace of change and innovation will accelerate, engendering fear and inertia in weaker businesses while encouraging entrepreneurial thinking and the creation of new revenue streams in others.

However, the most significant event that will influence magazine brands over the next 12 months has probably already happened. If forecasts were correct, tablet penetration in the UK had doubled by the time publishers returned from their Christmas break. One in five of us may now own one. It’s now a case of what we do with it.

This ubiquity of devices will dramatically expedite some of the trends and developments that we have seen recently. By the end of 2013, tablets will account for a significantly greater proportion of circulations. The bigger screen and the more "lean back" user experience of a tablet compared with a smartphone will lead new and lapsed magazine readers to trial in greater numbers. Once purchasing titles through the much-improved platform storefronts (eg. Apple Newsstand), there is also evidence emerging that these readers/users are positively exposed to and showing a propensity to buy other titles.

Making magazines work across the wider proliferation of devices and sizes is a real challenge for 2013, particularly for the more design-oriented brands. The user experience consumers expect across devices is something publishers are going to have to think about very carefully. Customers progressively want more than a basic replica of the print experience, and what they seek is also shaped by the different mindset they tend to have according to the device being used.

Brand footprints will continue to grow into new areas. Publishers must continue with experimentation ithe digital space, commercialising as-yet-untapped audiences (eg. social). Some will work, capturing the imagination of an audience and commercial partners, and some won’t. Brands such as Men’s Health and Runner’s World are examples of those that have got it right and already derive significant revenues through e-commerce and services. Developments such as Grazia’s "buy direct" shopping facility will stimulate more "affiliate" revenue streams.

Magazines need to be constantly evolving their propositions to meet consumer demands. The bigger publishing houses will have to sharpen their behaviour and be more nimble and quicker to learn, as smaller players such as ShortList Media and Time Out have demonstrated that there are tangible rewards in being brave. The confidence to fail fast, learn faster is not a traditional publishing trait due to the historic cost of innovation, but lower investment experiments will be more prevalent in the coming months.

Advertisers now value data very highly. Magazines have lots, from growing subscription sales to editorial touchpoints, competitions and offers. These should start to provide not only new and incremental revenue streams, but also augmented value for traditional advertising packages. And they can more easily demonstrate readers’ levels of interaction with commercial content. For publishers, there are huge benefits to be derived from taking advantage of the opportunity to deepen the meaning behind each individual interaction.

But it does need investment in systems and skilled resource. There will be better control of production levels and more bundling strategies in print this year to cut costs. These budgets must be shrewdly reinvested into multiplatform solutions and the right kind of talent.

Magazine brands also need to diversify revenue streams through creating new real and virtual brand content and experiences. Wired is a fabulous example of how to take a brand into new areas such as pop-up stores and conferences. Condé Nast’s fashion college, Cosmopolitan’s publishing of erotic short stories and Nuts’ expansion into branded package breaks (stag dos) are other recent innovations in this space. Brands such as BBC Good Food have been doing this for years, of course, but continuing reductions in copy sales income will stimulate more lateral thinking in this space.

Publishers also generate great content. Advertisers want more content-led solutions that work across platforms. Editorial teams are well-placed to create these ahead of creative agencies. They should do more.

In a digital world, print does still matter. Luxury brands still relish the environment and, in some categories (eg. fashion and home interest), both advertising and content favour the canvas of print. And to quote Nicholas Coleridge, "considered content and space, calm curated ideas which have been meticulously researched and put together" are very compelling for lucrative audiences who seek valued, stimulating, entertaining, targeted and trusted content.

Even in the battered weekly mass marketplace, circulations may be declining, but revenue is pouring in  from retailers as some newspapers become less relevant for certain key female audiences. If they can establish meaningful fulfilment partnerships with the right advertisers, then the weeklies can potentially replace lost circulation revenue.

This could be a good year. Readers have a relationship with magazines that is unique and hard to replicate with other media. Customers are prepared to commit cash to brands they have a deep and valued relationship with and content they value. Publishers will need to get better in 2013 at identifying what readers value most and monetising it on whatever platform customers engage with them on. Those that don’t might be doomed.

Alistair MacCallum is the managing director at M2M